Somewhere beyond the adventure, beyond the thrill of discovery, beyond the glory of triumph over difficulty, is there purpose?
The USS Enterprise is three years in to a five year mission, and Captain James T. Kirk is beginning to feel a bit stagnant. In their mission to seek out new life and new civilizations in the endlessness of space, Kirk feels that they are eternally striving for something that is forever out of reach, for there is never an end to the mysteries of the great unknown. Kirk is beginning to feel lost in the great beyond, where there's only himself, his ship, his crew, and the vastness of the borderless final frontier.
The first Star Trek of this reboot in 2009 was an origin story, bringing all the characters together for the first time. Into Darkness introduced the most notorious enemy and tested the team's bond. Star Trek Beyond deals with the inevitable temptation for the crew to go their separate ways and find another purpose. Although Beyond's main characters are all still young, Beyond is something of a mid-life crisis. Kirk is a well-loved captain of a sterling crew, but is getting lost in the monotony of responsibility. His maturity has progressed enough for him to acknowledge that he actually needs to deal with this personal crisis rather than going for another one-night stand or drunken brawl, which means he is dangerously close to actually changing his trajectory. Spock has decided that his romance with Uhura must be sacrificed for more responsible pursuits (namely, the continuing of the Vulcan race). Although there is not all that much concern that Kirk or Spock will really leave each other-- at least not in any capacity that can't be fixed in a later movie --there is a question as to what will occur to seal the unity of the main crew of the Enterprise.
Star Trek Beyond is by far the most original of the three movies. Where the first movie introduced familiar names and Into Darkness reimagined Star Trek's most celebrated villain, Beyond is free of the burden of exposition or nostalgia. In fact, Beyond makes decidedly fewer references to the original series, with very few winking remarks that only more hardcore fans will really catch. Beyond's villain Krall is both a new character and a new race for Star Trek, which allows the story a great deal of freedom with the characters' limitations and motives. The movie is more grounded, quite literally, as it takes place more on-planet rather than aboard the Enterprise. Characters are broken into unlikely pairings (Spock with Bones, Kirk with Chekhov, Uhura with Sulu), giving a brief but usable opportunity to evaluate the characters away from their normal surroundings or chosen company. Ergo, very little about this particular conflict, setting, or plot direction feels familiar.
In most ways, Star Trek Beyond is not about any one particular crew member. Had this been the case for either of the two previous movies, it would have felt empty and unfocused, but works here because the movie depends on the audience's investment in the series as a whole. Certainly Kirk and Spock remain focal points among an ensemble, but their personal reflections about their lives quickly become unaffecting footnotes until the conflict dies down. Much of what the Enterprise crew faces in this installment simply would not work in an earlier story, so the level of severity of the conflict feels as appropriate as its unfamiliarity. Truthfully speaking, Star Trek Beyond is not a complex piece of storytelling, but it is executed with fidelity to the humor and action that we expect, and throws a few moderate twists into the wheel to add both intrigue and perspective.
Star Trek Beyond is not a particularly deep movie except in post-cinematic analysis, but neither did it need to be. Action is exactly the sort of genre where lesser actors thrive by using the excesses of adrenaline indulgences and testosterone highs to distract from mediocre acting. Sci-fi action gets an additional crutch in that no one can criticize an alien humanoid for being acted poorly, because for all we know, that's how aliens behave. In such cases, actors are usually pawns to instigate fantastic action sequences with grand explosions. This is precisely why Star Trek Beyond is actually good-- it is a sci-fi action movie with every opportunity to take the low road and go for cheap thrills, but instead uses its established actors and their ownership of their characters to drive a movie that uses the adrenaline and grand explosions to frame a plot point, rather than the other way around. One notable exception to this, involving the Beastie Boys, is conducted with such grandiosity that the result, however absurd, is more smile-inducing (and head-pounding) than it is eye-rolling.
If I can make any criticisms, they are fairly minor. As mentioned earlier, there is not all that much concern that Spock might really leave the Enterprise to oversee the founding of New Vulcan. If he did, we'd expect a fourth movie to bring him back somehow. Kirk's enticement to accept an Admiralty is moderately more concerning, but only because Shatner's Kirk did, and then regretted it. Still, the lack of tension that these ends might play out did not lessen the movie as a whole for me, so much as set up a few stakes beyond the usual saving humanity. Otherwise, newcomer Jaylah didn't really bring much to the story other than the cliche "you killed my father" grudge, and providing a way off the planet. She does use some rather fascinating technology, but is herself not a very captivating character.
Star Trek Beyond is perhaps not the highest point in the trilogy, nor for sci-fi in general, but it's still a heck of a lot of fun. By the movie's end, the present conflict has been settled and the story wraps with the sort of ending that doesn't necessitate another movie, but certainly dangles the hope that we can look forward to another story in a few years that will boldly go into further adventures in the final frontier.